January 26 is, and always has been, Invasion Day. It marks the day the British colonised this country and brought with them the exploitative and oppressive practices that made the British Empire so barbaric, yet so profitable.
It’s an annual punch in the face for Aboriginal people, a day spent listening to television and talkback radio either ignore the truth about this invasion, or attempt to rewrite Australia’s history entirely.
We are pissed off – and we are not alone. As of 2017, 61 percent of young people viewed the celebrations negatively, expressed most clearly in Triple J’s decision to move the Hottest 100 to the fourth weekend in January.
Even more positive is the significant turnout at the annual Invasion Day rallies across the country, most notably Melbourne and Sydney. That people will come out and protest on Invasion Day rather than get pissed with mates is important, and the pathetic attempts by Triple M to reinstate the celebration of invasion with its Ozzest 100 cannot change that.
It’s important that the campaign to change the date has forced people to question the narrative of Australia Day and has galvanised widespread support for Aboriginal people, strengthening solidarity between us and our non-Aboriginal counterparts.
Nothing to celebrate
The nationalism that underpins Australia Day assumes there’s something to celebrate about this country. I don’t agree. Nationalism is a cancer. It tells us that although there may be deep inequalities, at the end of the day we are all “Aussies” and all share a collective interest in the prosperity of this nation.
It attempts to cover up the reality of how deep the division is between the “haves” and “have nots”. Last year, profit rates increased for big business. Average living standards declined by the greatest amount since the recession of the early 1990s. The idea that a worker like myself has anything in common with Malcolm Turnbull or the CEOs of big business is ludicrous.
So rather than change the date, I am against any day being allocated to celebrate the foundation of Australia. There’s nothing to celebrate, and some honest research into the past 230 years only makes this clearer. In the early days, the drive for profit through the establishment of the colony’s pastoral industry defined the relationship between Aboriginal people and the colonisers. The invaders labelled my people an inferior race that could not compete with white civilisation and were doomed to extinction.
This was the precursor to outright genocide, massacres such as Myall Creek and Appin that occurred up and down the east coast, and further inland as the colonies expanded. This is not an anomaly, and the reality of colonisation in Australia was very similar to colonialism more generally across the globe: an attempt to dispossess and siphon profit out of the colonised people to the benefit of the occupying power and its rich elite.
What followed was more than two centuries of oppressive laws and practices imposed on my people by state and federal governments. The Half Caste Acts of Victoria and Western Australia and the Aborigines Protection Act in the late 1800s dictated the entire lives of Aboriginal people, from who they could marry and associate with, where they could work and what they were paid with, to the denial of democratic rights and freedom of movement.
The land grab also led to the establishment of Aboriginal reserves, or “missions”, across the country. These missions still exist. I’ve lived on one, and the only difference between now and when they were first established is that they now have proper toilets. The government literally rounded up hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal people, dragged them from their land and placed them on the outskirts of towns on sites managed by the Catholic Church or sometimes the local police. The rich pastoral investors needed the land, and the state did what needed to be done to meet their needs.
State repression of Aboriginal people escalated in the 20th century, as if the first 100 years of invasion weren’t bad enough. The policy of the new federal government had shifted from open genocide to assimilation, hoping we would die out and those children born with a lighter complexion could be “saved” and “reintegrated” into white society.
This led to a ramping up of the Stolen Generations – stealing Aboriginal children from their families, which destroyed countless lives. The land grab continued, this time for the interests of the mining sector. It was the same strata of society, the rich and their servants in parliament, who led the charge.
More recently we’ve had the Howard government’s “Northern Territory Intervention”. We’re told that the military was sent into Aboriginal communities to save the children. I’m calling BS on that. Politicians didn’t care when Elijah Doughty was killed in Kalgoorlie in 2016; they called him a young criminal, implying he deserved to die.
They didn’t care about Colleen Walker, Evelyn Greenup or Clinton Speedy-Duroux, the three Aboriginal children murdered in my home town of Bowraville in 1990-91; they blamed the families, or with my Aunty Muriel (Colleen’s mother), asked if she was even Colleen’s mother and suggested that Colleen had just “gone walkabout”.
That we had a Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody in 1991 with very limited implementation of its recommendations, and a spike in deaths in custody over the past two years, tells you something about how the Australian government relates to Aboriginal people.
But our story is not one of passive acceptance of state repression. Like all oppressed people, there is only so far you can push us before we resist, and my people have an impressive history of doing exactly that. An Australia Day where we supposedly celebrate what unites us, regardless of the date it’s held, can’t paper over these struggles, which reveal deep divides built into Australian capitalism.
The Frontier Wars tell the inspiring history of Aboriginal struggle. From Pemulwuy and the Battle for Parramatta and Windradyne of the Wiradjuri, to Tullamareena, a Wurundjeri man who burnt down the first ever prison built in Melbourne after being imprisoned with his family for taking cattle from Wurundjeri land “owned” by a British banker – the outbreak of resistance started early, with skirmishes and guerrilla warfare waged well into the mid-1800s.
As Aboriginal people became more integrated into mainstream society, both a product of struggle and the entering into the workforce of a large section of the urban Aboriginal population, a layer of Aboriginal working class militants developed to become leaders of our struggle. All of our heroes deserve a mention. Australia Day could aptly be called “Amnesia Day” for how our struggles have been ignored or written out of history altogether.
We should remember others who resisted invasion and its consequences. Fighters such as Mumaring (also known as Daisy Bindi), a leader of the 1946 Pilbara strike, who fought for better wages and conditions for Aboriginal people working on pastoral stations. The 1966 fight over wages and conditions at Wave Hill station in the Northern Territory, led by Gurindji lore man Vincent Lingiari, quickly developed into the struggle for land rights.
Arthur Murray, a leader of the campaign for justice for Aboriginal deaths in custody after his son Eddie was murdered in the Wee Waa lockup, also was a working class militant who established the Cotton Chippers Union for seasonal Aboriginal (and non-Aboriginal) workers in Wee Waa in 1973. Arthur led an indefinite strike of 500 cotton chippers against appalling working conditions, underpayment by the boss and the terrible living conditions provided to the Aboriginal community.
We are still fighting
The struggle for Aboriginal rights continues today. In 2016, gains were made by the campaign led by Aunty Jenny Munro and other Aboriginal activists to demand Aboriginal housing on the Block in Redfern.
A year earlier, a mass campaign hit the streets in response to the Abbott government’s plan to forcibly close Aboriginal communities in South Australia and Western Australia, drawing solidarity from broad sections of society.
The campaign against black deaths in custody and against police brutality continues in the face of indifference from state and federal governments.
Many of these struggles are ongoing because the underlying causes of Aboriginal oppression remain. And while it is positive that there is a movement to change the date of Australia Day, the history of this country’s relationship with Aboriginal people is nothing to celebrate on any day of the year.
Nor is the history of exploitation of workers, or attacks on unions; the racism, sexism and homophobia built into Australia. The government uses every opportunity to fan the flames of racism and create new divisions.
Whether it’s “Sudanese gangs” in Victoria, the “threat” of refugees languishing on the dole and stealing our jobs – at the same time! – or a homophobic denial of marriage equality for more than a decade, governments relish the opportunity to have us biting at each other’s throats while the real “leaners” – the rich – slash our wages and make off with huge tax breaks. An anti-racist movement for Aboriginal rights can cut against such attempts to divide us.
So I will not be celebrating on Invasion Day. I’ll be protesting – and you should too. Join us at 10am on Friday 26 January for Invasion Day 2018 at the Block, Redfern.
Gavin Stanbrook is a member of Socialist Alternative. This article first appeared at www.TheBrag.com.